The Bears’ offense (and, more appropriately, Justin Fields) continued to make strides during their 35-32 loss to the Dolphins in Week Nine. On the other hand, the defense had their hands full with Miami’s high-powered offensive attack, and they struggled to keep up with their track star receivers on the outside. However, they performed much better against the run and only gave up 77 yards on 23 carries. Undrafted rookie Jack Sanborn, who was making his first career start, was a big reason for their increased success in the ground game.
Sanborn got the starting nod over new acquisition A.J. Klein (whom the team received from Baltimore as part of the Roquan Smith trade) and proceeded to play 50 of the team’s 57 defensive snaps. He finished second on the team with seven tackles and consistently plugged running lanes before Miami’s running backs could make it beyond the second level. It was a welcome sight to see him plugging running lanes, as that has been an area Chicago has struggled mightily to begin the year.
Smith may have been leading the league in tackles prior to being traded, but that does not tell the full story of his season. He was inconsistent for much of the year and failed to play at the level expected from him as one of the league’s premier off-the-ball linebackers. Meanwhile, Sanborn has the benefit of entering the lineup with virtually no expectations, as the Bears’ sole investment in him was bringing him in as an undrafted free agent.
It would be unfair to compare Sanborn to Smith in a funnel. The latter was a former eighth-overall selection who has already made two Pro Bowls and is still in the prime of his career, while the former is an unproven rookie who inexplicably fell out of the draft. However, there is a reason the Bears only got a second and fifth-round selection for the 25-year-old. There are a slew of starting-caliber linebackers in the league, and unproven players are often capable of playing at a high level. Is Sanborn a better player than Smith? Absolutely not. Can he provide a similar impact to the one Smith had? That is certainly not out of the question.
The University of Wisconsin product was a preseason fan favorite after displaying a strong nose for the ball during the exhibition contests. He is a perfect fit for a Matt Eberflus-led defense, as he plays through the whistle and seems to recognize the importance of attacking the football. The 22-year-old may not have forced any turnovers against Miami, but it is safe to say the takeaways are coming if he remains on the field.
Chicago’s rookie class has had a strong showing throughout the first half of the season, and it looks like Sanborn is another player who could become a valued contributor. While he can still improve some aspects of his game (especially in the passing game), that is to be expected at this stage of his career. His first shot at replacing Smith was overwhelmingly positive, and he will hopefully be able to build on the fast start as he gets more comfortable with his role in the defense in the coming weeks.